Bloomberg Locked Up Nearly Half a Million People on Marijuana Charges

Former mayor now campaigning on decriminalization

February 28, 2020

Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg argued on the debate stage in South Carolina that people shouldn't be arrested for marijuana possession, but as the mayor of New York City, Bloomberg aggressively prosecuted the crime, arresting more people for the offense than the three previous mayors combined.

"We should not make this a criminal thing if you have a small amount," Bloomberg said at Tuesday's debate. "For dealers, yes. But for the average person, no, and we should expunge the records of those who got caught up in this before."

Bloomberg's comment marks a remarkable change-of-heart for the billionaire mogul. During his 12-year tenure as mayor, the New York Police Department arrested roughly 106 New Yorkers each day for the lowest-level marijuana possession charge, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). In comparison, the administrations of Bloomberg's three predecessors, Democrats Ed Koch and David Dinkins and Republican Rudy Giuliani, collectively arrested 226,000 people, or 25 people daily, for the same charge over a 24-year period between 1978 and 2001. During Bloomberg's tenure, approximately 471,000 people were arrested on possession charges. 

The issue of marijuana has become a litmus test for the Democratic presidential contenders, who have embraced lenient drug policies to demonstrate their commitment to criminal justice reform. This is partly because many progressives believe that the criminalization of weed possession has drastically increased incarceration rates, especially among minority communities. In fact, prison data show that legalizing weed will have little to no impact on the prison population since few inmates are incarcerated for possessing marijuana.

The former mayor has remained a skeptic on the issue even as the rest of the Democratic field—with the notable exception of former vice president Joe Biden—lurched toward full legalization of the drug. Despite his current support for decriminalization, Bloomberg bluntly said that marijuana legalization is the "stupidest thing anyone has ever done" as recently as January 2019. Bloomberg's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Washington Free Beacon obtained the DCJS data from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, research groups that support drug reform. The data include every arrest of a New Yorker over the age of 16 where the lowest criminal possession offense was the primary or only charge.

New York City had relatively lax enforcement of marijuana-related offenses until the mid-1990s, in part due to a 1977 bill that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana that were not in public view. The enforcement changed when Giuliani was elected in 1994 after pledging to be tough on crime. Under Giuliani's leadership, the NYPD cracked down on marijuana possession in public view, which was still a crime punishable with jail time, on average arresting 24,000 people each year.

While Bloomberg acknowledged on the mayoral campaign trail that he had used weed before, he doubled down on Giuliani's policies when he became mayor in 2002. During Bloomberg's time at City Hall from 2002 to 2013, the New York Police Department arrested, on average, nearly 40,000 people each year. The possession arrests for Bloomberg's tenure peaked in 2011 when the police hauled in more than 50,000 New Yorkers.

Kassandra Frederique, managing director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that Bloomberg's policies subverted the protections of the 1977 law and turned the Big Apple into the "marijuana arrest capital of the country." The New York Times previously reported that NYPD officers frequently arrested people after ordering them to empty their pockets, an act that brought their marijuana into public view.

"Bloomberg is the reason we know decriminalization does not work and is not enough," Frederique told the Free Beacon. "New York City has had decriminalization on its books for four decades, but became known as the marijuana arrest capital of the country as the NYPD made over 400,000 marijuana arrests under Bloomberg’s draconian stop-and-frisk policy."

Bloomberg gradually softened his rhetoric as his tenure came to an end, reversing his position and supporting decriminalization for open possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012. But the former mayor has remained suspicious of full-on legalization, arguing on the debate stage that it is "nonsensical" to legalize the drug when scientists still do not understand the possible adverse health effects of marijuana use.

The Trump administration shares Bloomberg's concerns regarding marijuana legalization. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that legalization amounts to a "massive public-health experiment" that could endanger the public. He pointed to research that found habitual marijuana use among teens could lower their IQ. Other research that he cited showed mothers who use marijuana are more likely to experience premature births.

The former mayor's support for stop-and-frisk policing has also complicated his marijuana record. Many progressives argue that stop-and-frisk led to higher arrests for marijuana possession, especially in minority communities. Bloomberg had long defended the controversial policing practice as necessary for fighting crime until he unexpectedly apologized for the policy as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign in November.

"People say, 'Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities,'" Bloomberg said in 2015, addressing the pushback to stop-and-frisk. "Yes, that is true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Why did we do it? Because that's where all the crime is."

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) also faced scrutiny for her record on marijuana on the campaign trail. While Harris supports legalization today, California also prosecuted 1,974 people for weed possession during Harris's six-year tenure as the state's attorney general.